Littered with Failure

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (March 20th 2015)

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Over-rated and Over-paid

I admit straight away that I am heading into a minefield of trouble writing today about coaches – for footballers, born ad bred in Africa, those termed managers in England for example are called coaches, so for readers in England especially, I am not talking about the men and women who work with players on technique and much much more, often for poor reward and unsociable hours.

Their work is under-rated and underpaid. I am not talking about them, I am talking about the bosses, gaffers, etc. I do not really like discussing them. I think they earn too much money for the work that they do. In short, I think that their work is over-rated and over-paid as players do most of the work that counts – on the pitch. It is they who must perform to top of their abilities every match, even when the tactics are wrong, they are used wrongly, or played out of position in an outdated and inefficient system that the boss favours despite evidence that it doesnʼt work.

Bluff and Bluster

Coaches dramatise most of the time that the players are playing to instruction when the team is winning, and not playing to instruction when they are losing. They act out their script in the full glare of television, standing by the sidelines, pretending to be taking down notes – those are the smart ones. They scream out instructions that no one on the field hears or understands, and impact little on how the players play.

They ‘pretend’ to those that pay them humongous wages and the fans that ‘hire and fire’ them that they are ‘conducting’ things on the field of play with their sideline dramatisation of moods, and play mental games with referees. From their field-level position by the sideline they have the poorest view of the game and yet they have the final say on their team.

They talk and bluff their way to millions of Dollars, hopping from one failed coaching job to another. They know how to play the media particularly after winning one or two trophies and thereafter earn those outrageously high wages.  

The world of football is full of them – failed coaches!

Extra Dimension

Do not get me wrong, I love coaches. As players we were forced to develop a ‘love’ relationship with them because they held our careers in their hands. That’s why you would hardly ever hear a player criticise or condemn his coach even when he knows the coach may be the worst in the world.

We had a great example in Nigeria. Throughout his coaching stint in the national team none of the players (including those that had trained under obviously much better coaches in Europe) was brave enough to tell the world that the particular coach was so bad he could not even coach himself to control a ball!

Let me admit again that I have never really thought coaches are as important as football makes them out to be, even if I also concede that without them the game would not be the same because of the extra drama and dimension they bring to the game. A successful coach is one who wins championships consistently. His successes are listed in the number of laurels and silverware in his chest of trophies.

A good coach is one who produces teams that often play well, always come close to winning trophies, indeed occasionally win one, but manage to leave their imprint on their teams. There are very few truly successful coaches in the world. You can almost list them on your fingertips. Two excellent examples are José Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson. Another is the recently retired German maestro Jupp Heynckes.

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The Mark of Success

I was actually looking at Mourinho’s records recently and found that since 2000 when he started his coaching career in Portugal he may only have failed to win a trophy twice in the years from then till now, for the different clubs he coached. That is consistency, the true mark of a successful coach who knows how to win trophies and championships.

Good coaches are also few. In this group would be Arsenal’s Arsène Wenger and Manchester United’s Louis van Gaal. They do not win enough trophies consistently to be listed as ‘successful’ in my humble estimation, even if the rest of the world may think otherwise.

Take Wenger. Many of his fans will swear he is one of the best coaches in Europe, if not the world. But his true worth is diminished with the epilepsy of his winning trophies. Until the FA Cup of last season Wenger has failed to win anything for Arsenal in almost a decade!

Successful coaches necessarily double as good coaches! Good coaches are not necessarily successful. Consistently winning trophies makes the difference.

Most other coaches do not fall within either of the two categories above. They are part of the larger population of ‘failed’ coaches! They are the steppingstones for successful coaches! You find them in most teams, hardly ever winning anything, and always been hired and fired during the seasons.

The Nigerian Example

Let me play a dangerous game here and look at the Nigerian experience. I looked through the history of coaches that have handled Nigeria’s team in the past and started to wonder how they ever got there in the first place.

That's Better, Siasia smiles

What made Berti Vogts, Bora Milutinović, Festus Onigbinde, Shuaibu Amodu, Samson Siasia, Lars Lagerbäck, and many others qualified to coach the team? Were they successful, good or failed coaches at the points of their engagement? Take Clemens Westerhof for example. Although he certainly played a part in Nigeriaʼs second success in the African Cup of Nations in 1994, on what basis was he hired in 1990?

He was a nobody in coaching before he got the job. He spent 5 years before he won the African Cup of Nations and led Nigeria to qualify for the country’s first World Cup. By all standards that is a great achievement that should define the man. But it did not.

It has been 20 years since he left the country. In that time he has coached other teams and won absolutely nothing. He has not even remotely come close to his Nigerian ‘achievements’.

Culprits

So who is that coach who would take on any team and transform them into winners? That’s the man African countries need – a coach with records of tangible achievements that can be counted in trophies and cups, and not one that has no records of any sort, or has Pyrrhic records!

By the way, I am just ranting about coaches after watching Mourinho lose to Laurent Blanc in the European Champions League. What a ‘bad’ match that was with the referee, Bjorn Kuipers – referee with previous form of controversies – as the worst culprit on the night.

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FC Barçelona On My Mind

Segun at Wembley

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (March 2nd 2015)

Fan

I guess every reader of this column knows by now that I am a fan of FC Barçelona. I love the team because, like me, they are football purists, always winning by playing the better football, cleanly, clearly, and on the field – never in the boardroom. In the past decade, it is hard to find many lovers of football that have not been captivated by the club’s achievements, its football brand and philosophy, its youth academy and its very exceptionally gifted players.

Without question, FC Barçelona have been the team of the 21st Century, winning the world’s most coveted club trophy three times since 2000, getting to the semi-finals six times, and the quarter finals twice. Compare this to Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, which have won it twice each in that period, although, under José Mourinho, Real Madrid had a semi-final hoodoo, broken by Carlo Ancelotti winning the historic ʻLa Décimaʼ last season against cross-town rivals Atlético de Madrid.

Nevertheless, to the chagrin of Realʼs supporters, there is no question of who has played the better football and been more successful this century. It is clearly the Camp Nouʼs finest. This century the world has been treated to a brand of football that had never been seen previously in the history of the game.

The Blueprint

Tiki-Taka was a deliberate style of football conceived in Barçelona’s youth academy, complimented by acquiring some of the best players in the world – but many of Barçelona’s young players, not only held their own in élite company, they went on to play for Spain and made them World Champions for the first time in their history and the only nation to win and retain the European Championship.

Tiki-Taka became an art exhibition on display every week and everywhere FC Barçelona played. The team taught the rest of the world the ultimate art of ball possession, the quick one-two passing and movements, the short interchange of passes, back and forth and sideways, the players running and pressing when they lose possession, and maintaining a fluid but intricate organised pattern of movements all the time like a well-oiled machine.

With this style of play the team simply ran rings around most opposing teams. They were a delight to watch, even though critics of their style began to describe them as boring and rather monotonous. In the past decade, particularly, the ultimate challenge for European club managers was how to decode the team’s play. In the past three years a few have succeeded.

Real Madrid and Atlético de Madrid in Spain and Bayern Munich in Germany discovered the antidote and reduced Barçaʼs impact and dominance. FC Barçelona needed to do something different to compete to win the UEFA Championsʼ League again.

The New Era

As great players aged – not even Barçelona have discovered the elixir of perpetual youth – a new style was needed too. Barçelonaʼs captain supreme Xavi Hernández i Creus doesnʼt play so much now, but Andrés Iniesta Lujáremains an integral part of the new machine.

I have just watched Barçelona FC take Manchester City FC to the cleaners in the first leg of the round of 16. It was a very emphatic and comprehensive performance that captured the essence of a ‘new’ FC Barçelona.

What is clear is that Tiki-Taka has been dismantled and is metamorphosing into something new, something less dramatic but, potentially more exciting and more deadly when the ‘concoction’ fully matures!

The old Barça played with 7 or more midfield players without a permanent striker upfront. Now, from outside the influence of the Barçelona youth academy, the team has been experimenting with new players for two seasons. FC Barçelona may have returned to the conventional style of European club football but they have created a new headache for European club managers.

The price that Barça have had to pay for this new formation is a midfield and defence that now look less compact with more open spaces for opposing teams to play. FC Barçelona are no less exciting than they once were, are less patient in attack than they once were, are less dominant in ball possession than they were previously, and less imposing on opposing teams than they once were. But for everything that they now are in deficit over, they make up for it with a striking partnership of three of the best goal scorers on the planet in their team!

In Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior (Neymar), Luis Suárez Díaz and Lionel Messi Cuccittini, FC Barçelona now have a dream attacking formation almost unmatched by any other team with the exception of Real Madrid.

Questions

Having said all of that the question now arises: can the new FC Barçelona win the 2014/2015 UEFA Champions League? I run a betting shop so I know a good wager when I see one. This one is not. I will not put my money on FC Barçelona winning the Champions League this season.

Do not get me wrong. With a little bit of luck they can win it but the chances of that happening, in my humble estimation, are slim. Looking at how they have been playing this season, with Tiki-Taka dismantled, and a new style still developing, it may require the experience of one more season for the emerging philosophy to take a firm hold and make them champions once again.

Lionel Messi – Back and Better

Lionel Messi’s lethargic performance at the World Cup cost him a great deal. All he needed to do was alter his mindset and commit one hundred percent to the cause and lead Argentina to win the World Cup. That feat would have earned him the highest honour in the history of football – the best footballer that ever lived.

But something happened to him during the World Cup that I still cannot fathom. He did not play with the spirit of one that wanted to win very badly. He ‘strolled’ through the matches, and even got to the final playing without conviction and fire in the eyes. When Argentina lost Messi lost even more.

As a result, no one raised an eyebrow or complained when a few months later the hard-working, but obviously less talented Cristiano Ronaldo stole the show again and took away the crown of World’s best player from him again. Ronaldo thoroughly deserved it and it appeared as if the spirit to win had left Messi.

Now here comes a new season and suddenly, for the first time in a long while, Barçelona FC and Messi are back. Lionel Messi is playing spiritedly again. It is quite apparent in the way he plays these days, chasing and running around, joining in defending when his team loses possession, getting involved more than ever before during play, and playing his team from the front through physical effort.

It reminds me of the Messi of the early days of his career. He anchored Barçelona FC’s unique brand of football that dominated world football in the past decade. At that time there was no disputing the fact that in Barçelona and Messi the world had the best team and the best player respectively.

For Lionel Messi there is no doubt in my mind that he is the greatest to have ever played football. He may not have the complete range of skills like Pelé, or almost singled-handedly led his country to win the World Cup like Maradona, but in terms of sheer natural ability and affinity with the ball at his feet, there has never been a better player.

There is a magnetic relationship between his left foot and the ball that makes him do almost anything with it at will, almost effortlessly. It is hard to put into words his ease and comfort on the ball, his dribbling ability even in the tightest of corners, how he wriggles between defenders, how he rides tackles, how he glides and races past defenders, how he makes difficult shots look so easy, how he makes goal scoring a habit.

From what I have seen of Messi this current season, if all goes well and he remains injury free, he is set to extend his grip on world football. He will likely win the World’s best player award again for an unassailable 5th time. And probably the world will now accept, as I have claimed over and over again, that there has been no player like Lionel Messi in the history of football!

The Final Chapter

Segun at Wembley

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (February 15th 2015)

Afcon 2015 – New African Champions

After an exciting three weeks of pulsating but technically mediocre festival of football in Equatorial Guinea, the Elephants of la Côte d’Ivoire have become the new Champions of African football. They took the coveted trophy that was relinquished, rather humiliatingly, by Nigeria. The Super Eagles had exited at the qualifying stage of the championship.

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It may have taken well over 20 years for their trophy drought to end, but when it finally did the whole of Côte d’Ivoire exploded in an orgy of celebration as the government declared a national public holiday and lavishly rewarded the gallant heroes with houses and cash gifts. It was a far cry from the disgraceful treatment Ivorian players received from former dictator Robert Guéï after a poor performance in Afcon 2000.

History

The final match against Ghanaʼs Black Stars created razor-sharp pressure for both teams. Tactically, they cancelled each other out for 120 minutes and the match had to be settled by penalty kicks – again. That match marked the third time the Elephants played in the final of the Nations Cup and did not score a goal. It also marked the third time a final involving the Ivorians had gone to penalties.

The recourse to penalty kicks against these opponents historically favoured the Ivorians. In 1992 they won the championship for the first time against Ghana after a marathon penalty shoot-out that ended 11-10. They had tasted defeat in a penalty shoot-out too when Egypt won the first of their unprecedented three consecutive titles in 2006.

Two Sunday night’s ago the elements were on the side of Côte d’Ivoire once again, as ‘lightning struck twice on the same spot’. 

Ghana were left stranded on the banks of misfortune as they threw away an early two-goal lead, due to nerves, and lost 8-9 in the end, continuing a trophy drought that has lasted 33 years. The Black Stars have lost their last three finals, twice on penalties to the Ivorians and once to Egypt in 2010

Apart from the penalty shoot-out the final match was tension-soaked but technically ordinary and boring – a true reflection of the entire championship.

The Special Generation

Winning the championship was momentous for Côte d’Ivoire as it marked the end of an era for several of their ageing generation of players, some of whom have been among the best footballers in the history of African football. Between them, Didier Drogba and Yaya Touré have won the African player of the year award 7 times. Add to that other great players playing at a high level in Europe, including Kolo Touré, Salomon Kalou, Gervinho, and so on.

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It is unfortunate that Drogba chose to retire from international football on the eve of the championship. The victory would have capped a very illustrious and unprecedented career that had only the African Cup of Nations title as the missing trophy in his rich chest.

Scant Consolation

Overall, Ghana looked the slightly better and more organised team, even though Côte d’Ivoire were unbeaten did not lose any of their matches throughout the championship. However, the Ghanaians were the more entertaining team during the tournament. Consequently, it is not surprising that the player of the tournament came from the Ghanaian team.

Christian Atsu, currently on loan from Chelsea to Everton got more opportunities under Avram Grant than he has from José Mourinho or Roberto Martínez in England. The fleet, left-footed player operated from the right side of the Ghanaian attack, scoring two of Ghana’s three goals in the quarter-finals and constantly terrorised the Ivorian defence during the final. He deserved the award. He was a bright star in a very grey constellation.

Memories

Finally, the Championship will be remembered not for memorable matches but for other reasons: how the championship ended up in a country that did not even qualify for the championship and was under suspension by CAF; how the terraces were empty during most of the matches except those involving the host country; how Morocco were suspended (and rejected the suspension) for two tournaments for refusing to host the event due to genuine health fears; how Tunisia were suspended for failing to apologise for accusing CAF of bias and complicity when they were openly ‘robbed’ by a referee who only got a slap-on-the-wrist six-month suspension, for his shameful handling of the match in question; how supporters of the host country threw decorum to the dogs and unleashed mayhem on players and supporters of an opposing team with the shameful scenes watched on television all over the world; how both CAF and FIFA Presidents condemned the Western media for ‘exaggerating’ reports of the incidents that smeared the organization of the championship because they needed to make more friends than enemies amongst national federations with their elections coming, and so on.

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At the end of Afcon 2015, the championship simply could not produce or showcase the best version of African football as well as authentic new stars to illuminate African football into the immediate future. Letʼs hope that Afcon 2017 will supply both. The country that will host that tournament will be decided by CAF in April, following the withdrawal of Libya as hosts due to security concerns.

Next Time the Fire-power

Four countries that expressed an interest met CAFʼs conditions to host the tournament. Beaten finalists Ghana last hosted in 2008. They also hosted and won the tournament twice previously. The first time was in 1963 – the first appearance of the Black Stars in the tournament. That was the first of three triumphs under the legendary African coach Charles Kumi Gyamfi. Only Egyptʼs Hassan Shehata has matched him, although Hervé Renard has made history already and has power to add.

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The next time Ghana hosted and won was in 1978, the only victory of the Black Stars not under Gyamfiʼs supervision. Fred Osam Duodu was the successful coach. The most successful team in African history, the Pharaohs have won the trophy seven times. Egyptʼs last success – qualification too – was in 2010. They hosted and won in 2006.

Their fierce rivals the Desert Foxes of Algeria have only one title to their name. They hosted and won in 1990. That leaves Gabon. They have never won the trophy. Their best achievement was reaching the quarter-final twice, in 1996 when they went out on penalties to beaten finalists Tunisia and when they co-hosted in 2012. Gabon has never hosted in their own right.

Pride

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (December 10th 2014)

Dangerous

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History does not bode well for Sporting Clube de Portugal. No Portuguese team has succeeded at Stamford Bridge. And Chelsea are smarting from their first loss of the season at the weekend. And the rejuvenated on-loan Nani is injured. Defenders Cédric and the Brasilian Jefferson are also out injured. “If we talk about my team Nani is out. Jefferson, Cédric is also out”, the 37-year-old coach Marco Silva said. “I believe in my players. We will fight. Chelsea is always difficult, especially here”.

José Mourinho likes to win, but he knows that Chelsea have not only already qualified, but will top the group anyway. Chelsea have nothing to prove. Their first loss of the season means they are dangerous, but Mourinho has already said that youngsters will feature in his squad tonight. It doesnʼt faze Silva.

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The young players of Chelsea are good for sure”, he said. “They are playing for Chelsea. We are prepared. They are not second choices. They are not just playing. We know they are good and important”.

Focused

But Silva is focused. He knows that a draw guarantees progress to the lucrative knock-out stage of the Championʼs League. “Iʼm very pleased with my teamʼs performance”, he said. “Itʼs just one more match. It will be crucial. Itʼs important for us, especially for Sporting. We have just been to the second stage once and it would be fantastic for everybody, especially the club. We will fight”.

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Slovenians Maribor could do the Portuguese a favour by beating former Blues manager Roberto di Matteoʼs Schalke04, but Silva is not bothered by that match. “Football is too complicated to pay attention to the other match”, Silva said. “One point is our target. If we fail we will wait for the other result, but that would be making trouble. I will not tell the players about the other match. Letʼs see. We want to achieve our objective. I think we [Portuguese teams] havenʼt won any points, but we will fight for our target, one point”.

Mourinhoʼs Wish

Mourinho cut his teeth in management as the late Bobby Robsonʼs interpreter and local coach at Sporting Clube in 1992. Robson was sacked in 1993. Mourinho went with him to Porto and later Barçelona, where he also worked with Louis van Gaal. Mourinho later became phenomenally successful in his own right, winning the Championʼs League with both Porto and Inter. He won trophies in his first spell at Chelsea and at Real Madrid too before returning to Chelsea.

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He has made no secret that he wanted both Chelsea and Sporting Clube to reach the knock-out stage. Chelsea has already achieved their part. “Mourinho said the same thing in Lisbon for the first match between the teams”, Silva said. “He said his desire was to qualify in first place and Sporting in second place, but we want to win regardless of what Mourinho said”.

Aims

A draw is enough, but Silva doesnʼt intend playing for one. “[Playing for] the draw is dangerous” he said. “We know that Chelsea will be very hard, but we have to play within our limits. One point is enough, but we want three points. All my players are important, but nobody was believing in us. Tomorrow we can show everybody. If we qualify there is justice in this group, because we are playing very well and we want to win to qualify. We are guaranteed Europa League [at least]”.

Despite the success of Algerian striker Islam Slimani (2 Championʼs League goals in five matches) who will depart in January for the African Cup of Nations, Fredy Montero will play tonight.

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Montero ruled out excuses, such as Chelseaʼs first defeat and the weather. “The defeat of Chelsea last weekend doesnʼt change anything”, he said. “On the pitch it is eleven against eleven. We respect Chelsea, but we want to play our game. The weather doesnʼt change anything. It is the same for both teams. They are used to playing in this temperature but itʼs okay, we are ready”.

Ambitions

The Colombian striker has played in four of the five matches so far. He has yet to score. “ I am here to help the team when it needs me”, Montero said. “I havenʼt scored in the Championʼs League but it is my dream. I am confident that I can score. I always believe that I can score. I am here to help Sporting and I hope that the manager believes in me. I donʼt think I am the best Montero ever, but I will try to do my best”.

Montero knows that his country has an embarrassment of riches up front. Los Cafeteros shone at the recent World Cup despite the absence of their then talisman Radamel Falcao. James Rodríguez Rubio won the Golden Boot and Juan Guillermo Cuadrado wowed too. Europa League winner Carlos Bacca was an option too as was Portoʼs Jackson Martínez. And thatʼs without Falcao, who despite his loan move to Manchester United, may never return to his lethal best.

Still Montero refuses to give up on forcing his way into José Pékerman Krimenʼs plans. “Every game is an opportunity for me with my national team”, Montero said. “I am happy to play for Colombia. I want to show my worth and be in the national team after the World Cup and for the next year”.

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Decoded At Last

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (November 5th 2014)

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Enigma

It is Wednesday night. I have just watched my favourite football club in the world, but strangely I am in a rather melancholic mood. I watched ‘my team’ trounce Amsterdamʼs finest Ajax FC in the ongoing European Champions League. It was a very exciting and very entertaining match. I should be feeling great, yet, I feel empty inside.

The best football player of all time, in my humble estimation, Lionel Messi, scored a brace as usual and equalled Raúl González Blancoʼs European Champions League record of highest number of goals scored by an individual – 71. He achieved that feat in just 90 matches. It took Raúl – 66 goals for Real Madrid and 5 for Schalke – 142 matches to reach that tally. But hot on their heels is Messiʼs contender for best player, Cristiano Ronaldo, trailing by just one goal – albeit from 17 matches more than the mercurial Argentinian.

I should be happy, but, the match against Ajax was revealing. All is not well with FC Barçelona.

The Greatest?

This season they have left most of their fans hungry for the Barçelona of old – the team that won everything in club football in the world. They also contributed the largest number of players to a Spanish national team that won the World Cup in 2010.

In the past 10 years Barçelona have been the team to beat in global club football with unforgettable memories of performances beyond description. In terms of actual performance, for a period of years, the rest of the world was playing catch-up. Without being disrespectful to any one of the other great clubs in Europe and South America, at their best, Barçelona stood alone far and away better than the best the rest of the world had to offer.

The System

The secret to their monumental achievements was a system and football philosophy implanted, nurtured and perfected in the club’s academy – La Masia. It was then brought to fruition as a generation of exceptional players came through that academy, augmented by shrewd purchases along the way. It also required a great coach schooled in Barçelona’s ways. All these ingredients combined at the same time to deliver a sumptuous feast of football.

Personally, it is in the work perfected by coach Pep Guardiola that I started to have a fuller appreciation of how a coach can truly impact a team, how the daily grind of training sessions could transform into a playing style and system that become entrenched as a culture in the performance of a team, and etched into the psyche of their followers. Now I understand and appreciate Sir Alex Ferguson, José Mourinho, and Tihomir Jelisavčić1 – the shamefully neglected architect of Nigeria’s first African Cup of Nations triumph – even better.

Tiki Taka

That was the birth of the phenomenon called Tiki Taka, an intricate ‘dance’ movement like no other with the ball: quick short one-two passes, endless, seamless movements and interchange of positions, back and forth, leaving in their wake a perplexed, bemused and confused opposition struggling to keep pace.

Match after match of the Barcelona brand of football rattled and embarrassed coaches and dazzled the world. Playing some of the ‘weirdest’ and unconventional football imaginable, Barçelona’s midfield tore through opposing teams’ defences like a knife through butter. Never had the world seen such a display and such a team that performs with such elegance and ‘arrogance’, completely dominating every match with effortless running and ball possession. They were a delight to watch and a nightmare to confront.

Deciphering the Code

So, last season, when Barçelona failed to win any silverware many felt it was due more to ‘winning-fatigue’ rather than because Tiki Taka had been finally decoded. Now we know that there was more to it. The football ‘laboratories’ of some of the big clubs in Europe had not been asleep, They had been very busy and on full throttle to find an antidote to the Barça epidemic.

At the same time, in order to stay one step ahead and sustain their invincibility, Barçelona took some steps that may now have backfired. Most significant amongst several of them was the exit of coach Pep Guardiola and the departure to fight a sadly losing battle against cancer of his successor, Tito Vilanova. That resulted in the appointment of a new coach – one not brought up on Barçelona’s philosophy and culture. The Tata Martino experiment failed and Barça returned to a coach brought up the Barça way.

But there were other problems – the ‘reinforcement’ of the Barçelona striking force. Last season the hugely talented Brazilian Neymar Jnr joined Lionel Messi upfront. The combination had not fully clicked before, this season. Now former Ajax and Liverpool FC striker Luis Suárez Díaz has been added to the mix. On paper it may look like a dream striking partnership, but the reality after three matches is that in order to accommodate these new players that are not nurtured on the diet of the Camp Nou style and philosophy, Barçelona’s playing style has had to change.

Laid Bare

Last Wednesday night, against Ajax Amsterdam FC, the ‘new’ FC Barçelona was laid bare. It is nothing like the Barça of old. Gone is the intricate ball possession that defines Tiki Taka. Gone are the endless running, the pressing and the hot pursuits every time the team loses possession. Gone is the creative ingenuity of a team playing without an outright striker but conjuring a whole array of striking and free scoring options from mid-field.

Gone is the team that played with the patience of a vulture, probing, teasing and taunting opponents to pry open even the tightest and hardest defences. Gone is the team that dictates how every match is played, and, even in occasionally losing, usually is the better team.

Slowly but surely, the demystification of FC Barçelona is taking hold. The team has not won any silverware in two seasons and several big European clubs appear now to have their number – Real Madrid, Atlético de Madrid, Bayern Munich. Even Celta Vigo, a team at the bottom rung of La Liga, defeated them last week so tamely and so easily it was hard and painful to watch.

Do not get me wrong. FC Barçelona are not finished. Far from it. After all, they defeated Ajax and barring any disaster will qualify easily for the round of 16 of the Champions League.

Decoded

They have only lost their edge. They have dropped from their place as the best team on the planet and rejoined the league of the great teams in Europe. They no longer stand ‘alone and apart’ at the very top of world football.

It was inevitable that the ‘end’ would come one day, but for many of us it is coming too soon! I still love my Barça, but even I must admit that the end is in sight for the philosophy of football that made FC Barçelona the best team that ever played football – the team that the world stood still and watched every time they stepped out to dance to the beat of Tiki Taka.

For now I can only celebrate in muted anticipation of what would happen next to my beloved club. My Barça have been decoded!

1Jelisavčić coached the Super-Eagles from 1974 until 1978. We won the next edition in 1980, coached by Otto Gloria, but the foundations of that triumph were laid by Jelisavčić.

Imperious Chelsea Crush Maribor

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (October 21st 2014)

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Unbridgeable Gulf

Albeit with some decisions going their way Chelsea thoroughly outclassed Sloveniaʼs champions and conquerors of Celtic, Maribor 6-0 at Stamford Bridge tonight. The injuries woes piled up as Loïc Rémy scored, but immediately succumbed to a groin injury that will keep him out for a fortnight. Diego Costa is also injured, meaning that veteran striker Didier Drogba in his second coming at Stamford Bridge will most likely start against Manchester United on Sunday.

Maribor certainly didnʼt have the rub of the green. Two debatable penalties against them and a goal that ought to have been disallowed never help, but Mariborʼs coach Ante Šimundža made no excuses. The better side had deservedly won. “It was obvious that was a team that is a serious candidate to win the title in this yearʼs Championʼs League and the quality of the players was out of reach for us – their individual quality also”, Šimundža said. “Chelsea was just the better team and deserved to win all there points”.

CIMG9333José Mourinho was more circumspect. “We played well”, Mourinho said. “The best way to respect is to play the best possible way and I think this was a good thing of the team. From minute one to the last minute we tried always to play and to play well and even defensively we respect the opponent. We know the qualities they have. The strikers are good players and the wingers are dangerous players. They deserve our respect and we respect them so much and because we respect them so much we manage to have such a solid performance in both ways with or without the ball… We won three points. We have seven. We are happy. We are top of the group. We played very well”.

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Demolished

With less than 15 minutes played Rémy opened the scoring after latching on to John Terryʼs pass on the right flank. It was Rémyʼs last touch after looking sharp. The former QPR man made way for Chelsea legend Didier Drogba. To the cheers of the Stamford Bridge faithful Drogba stepped up to take the penalty ten minutes after Rémy had given Chelsea the lead.

Slovenian international Aleš Mewrtelj was adjudged by Dutch referee Danny Makkelie, making his Championʼs League debut, to have handled Willianʼs pass at close range. To Mourinhoʼs disapproval Drogba was allowed to take the penalty by regular penalty taker Eden Hazard. “I donʼt like it”, Mourinho said. “They have the freedom to do it. They can do it, but he has score”.

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And he did. Drogba sent keeper Jasmin Handanović the wrong way to score his first goal for Chelsea since winning the Championʼs League two years ago under newly appointed Schalke coach Roberto di Matteo.

A magnificent counter-attack from a Maribor corner put the table-toppers three ahead. Drogba cleared to Hazard who dribbled into the heart of the Slovenians defence before releasing Cesc Fàbregas on the overlap. Terry made up the ground to score from close range from Fàbregasʼ cross. It ought to have been disallowed for offside, but didnʼt really affect the result.

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After the break Chelsea pursued more. Willian fed his compatriot Filipe Luis on the left wing. Some neat footwork bamboozled the defender, but the cross went across the goal to Hazard whose cross clipped Mitja Vilerʼs heel for an own-goal after 54 minutes. Ten minutes later Agim Ibraimi went down under Nemanja Matićʼs challenge. Summing up Mariborʼs night Ibraimiʼs penalty hit the post with Petr Čech beaten.

With less than 15 minutes remaining Branislav Ivanović won a penalty for a shove in the back by Marko Šuler. Again it looked a bit soft, but the Serbian international could have gone down under a previous challenge if he had wanted to for a clear penalty. Hazard scored. Just before that goal Willian a nice run and shot from distance by Willian beat everyone, but the crossbar. Still Chelsea were not satisfied. In injury time Hazard got his second after latching onto a raking pass from substitute Nathan Aké and making space to beat the disconsolate Handanović for the sixth.

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The Legend

Strikers like to score goals”, Mourinho said. “He [Drogba] was not for a long time on the pitch in previous matches. He just had a start against Schalke. His last goal for Chelsea was the most important in the history of this club, so to be back and to score again at Stamford Bridge is nice for him. Good”.

Drogba is far from up to the pace of English football yet, but the injury crisis that has developed seems to leave Mourinho with little option but to play the Ivorian against Manchester United on Sunday.

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I was not expecting him to play 75”, Mourinho said. “I spoke with him yesterday and we spoke about 30, but circumstances, he had to come on and the game went in a direction where he could manage the intensity and he could manage his range of movements and he was comfortable to play 75 minutes, so in the end it was very, very important for Didier, because the best thing for a player to improve his condition is to play, so very good for him”.

Mourinho thought it too early to think of being contenders for the trophy. “We are in the group phase”, he said. “We played three matches. To be in the final we have to play 12 and qualify for the final. Long, long way to go. I think itʼs premature to speak about that. We are not even qualified for the next phase, so step by step. First objective is to qualify, second objective is to finish first in the group, so letʼs go step by step”.

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The Ides of October

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (October 10th 2014)

BPL – Under Starter’s Orders

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There are two things on my mind this weekend – the Barclays Premier league and Nigeria’s match against Sudan! I am thinking and looking closely at the real contenders for this season’s BPL trophy already. Just one week into the league season I noted that Chelsea FC looked very seriously like the team to beat this season – not much insight needed there. But Manchester United was proving an enigma. Was last season just a blip, or is there a bigger problem?

Until last week Manchester United looked out of sorts with the much travelled and successful Louis Van Gaal wondering whatever happened to his football magic wand. Van Gaal conceded that this has been his worst and most challenging experience since he started coaching and he acknowledged how difficult it now appeared to be for the club to rise again and play like the champions of old.

Although it is still morning in the league, the signs don’t indicate a typical Man United resurgence. Whatever happened to Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and the new mercurial on-loan striker, Radamel Falcao? Colombia’s talisman looks lost in the team, although he and United have the class to demand not to be written off. Falcao has scored goals wherever he [plays, but ominously United don’t play the way that he has thrived on.

English football’s most expensive player, the Argentinian Ángel di María, may well become the Joker in the pack and alter the fortunes of Man U for good if and when he hits full throttle and finally starts to play as well as we all know he is capable of doing. There’s no doubt that United have bought class players and paid well for them. It remains to be seen whether they will deliver and what place if any will be found for the club’s previous record signing Juan Mata.

Fluctuating Arsenal

The Gunners spent heavily this season, but results show that they still need to spend some more to get the perfect combination going. The Chilean winger Alexis Sánchez arrived from FC Barçelona sporting great credentials, but for me, he has been a great disappointment.

His performances during the World Cup for Chile were so fantastic that even I believed that any club would be lucky to pry him away from Cataluña. Instead, he has looked rather slow and uncertain about how to play in Arsenal, just as the team also continues to display great vulnerability when defending. He may just need time to adjust to a new league and team and his team-mates to him, but football is not known for patience.

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The team’s performance has kept oscillating between mouth-watering brilliance and the abysmal. Arsenal also, like Manchester United, have not played like potential champions. Arsène Wenger still needs to make use of the next transfer window for players that can to shore up the team’s defence. Otherwise, despite celebrating 18 years at Arsenal recently – the longest serving manager in the BPL currently – this may be his last season with the Gunners.

Liverpool face different problems. They have just not struck a great rhythm yet. They have played with the promise of great things, but have failed to be firm in their delivery. There is more bottled up in side the team than being displayed so far. Despite new signings led by Mario Balotelli, along with Dejan Lovren and Adam Lallana, world class is hard to replace. Warts and all Luis Suárez is world class and proving hard to replace. Liverpool may find a way to click, but in my opinion they are unlikely to walk alone with the crown this time even if on paper they have the capability.

Impressive Defence

Manchester City FC have been impressive. They are improving with every match, and may indeed have the best front line in the Premiership this season with several attacking options upfront led by Edin Džeko, Sergio Agüero and Stevan Jovetić.

Yaya Touré continues to inspire with his week-in week-out textbook demonstration of how to play in central midfield. When in top form he is the perfect bridge between defence and attack. He surely must be in contention for the best central midfield player in the world, and a leading contender for Africa’s next Player of the Year Award again this December!

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But it is Chelsea FC in England (not in Europe where they have looked boring and have been played tamely) that have shown quite clearly their intention to win the Premiership. The team has played every match with the signature of José Mourinho written all over it. The shoving spat between Wenger and Mourinho last weekend, when Chelsea beat Arsenal with consummate ease, really confirmed Chelsea’s strength and determination this season. They are the team playing with the spirit of potential champions.

Stephen Keshi, Super Eagles and the Ides of March!

The last thing on my mind as we approach this weekend is the most discussed issue in Nigerian football at the moment. As Nigeria Super Eagles of play away in Sudan the match could determine Stephen Keshi’s fate as manager of the Super Eagles.

Undoubtedly, while not plumbing the depths of Berti Vogts’ Super Chickens, the Super Eagles have been anything but super since after the World Cup. Before then Keshi could do no wrong. He had amassed the most successful record for a Nigerian in the history of football in the country. Then he took Nigeria to the World Cup where he put up a fairly good performance until some immature behaviour by the players, that many people have said he encouraged and benefited from, crept in to ruin everything he had worked for.

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With a new Executive Committee that appears not to want him but cannot get rid of him easily, he now faces the biggest threat to his stay as manager of the national team. For now he is hanging on to the job by the skin of his teeth and is likely to be laid off should the Super-Eagles fail to impress this weekend.

The biggest thing going for him is the absence of any alternative to him as coach of the Eagles. In this era of ex-internationals, no other Nigerian ex-international has his rich football management credentials. So, to consider anyone amongst a list of the few in his category is difficult. It can’t be justified.

Samson Siasia, whose name is being mentioned as a possible replacement, would be a hard sell. Nothing has happened in Siasia’s career since he was replaced by Keshi to indicate that he is now a different and better coach. Perhaps, Sunday Oliseh? He looks the part, but can he walk the walk?

I do not like the setting of this weekend’s match at all. I wonder why CAF would allow a match of this magnitude to be played on artificial turf. This could well spell doom for the Super Eagles.

I do not like it one bit! The Super Eagles and Stephen Keshi must beware the Ides of March, or should that be the Ides of October. But good luck to the Super Eagles.

Segun at Wembley